Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Why do renters get a bad rap in Calgary?

Homeownership is still king — and renters pay the price.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

Sign me up!

Thanks to the support of our 2,000+ members, none of our stories are behind a paywall. Help us do more of the journalism we need right now and become a Sprawl member today!

Luis Virla and his wife Inés Hernández-Virla rent a two-bedroom unit in a fourplex in Windsor Park, an established community in southwest Calgary. But with two children to care for, their hearts are set on homeownership. “Owning a home is a symbol of stability,” Virla said. “If you don’t own one, you’re unstable.”

Their aspirations are akin to those of many Calgarians, who see renting as just a temporary arrangement. But in Calgary, like in cities across North America, renters aren’t always welcome, which makes it difficult to find a suitable, stable home to raise one’s family. To some homeowners, renters can seem detached and uninvested in their communities.

Leslie Evans, executive director of the Federation of Calgary Communities, is aware of some of these stereotypes, which can generate community opposition to the development of multi-family buildings and secondary suites. “We have in our mind that renters care less [about the property], because they don't have an investment,” she said. “There is the perception that the house will not be kept to the same standard.”

There’s this idea that … people who own are somehow going to be better citizens, better neighbours, better people than renters.

Heather Rollwagen,

Associate professor of sociology, Ryerson University

Furthermore, Evans notes that because of the “nature of a renter,” homeowners are less inclined to develop a neighbourly relationship with them. “Usually a renter is not going to rent a house or apartment for 30 years,” she said.

In a culture where homeownership requires a series of moves, from a “starter home” to a “forever home,” why are renters perceived as being less committed to the communities they live in?

“There's this idea that people have choice, and that people who own are somehow going to be better citizens, better neighbours, better people than renters,” said Heather Rollwagen, an associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University. But the evidence supporting this notion is inconclusive.

The ideology of homeownership

In his 2016 book, No Place Like Home, American sociologist Brian McCabe explains how “the financial importance of homeownership changes the way citizens participate in community life.” But as homeowners become more engaged, he writes, a focus on property values “contributes to patterns of segregation and social exclusion.”

Rollwagen noticed these patterns firsthand when she lived in Calgary, and her observations led her to explore the ideology of homeownership in her PhD dissertation. This ideology might create inaccurate narratives about renters, including the beliefs “that renters won't care about the property," and "that they don't have an investment in the community,” Rollwagen said.

But renters can be as good (or as bad) as any homeowner—they’ve just chosen a different investment model. Jen Caswell, a born and raised Calgarian who has been renting the same unit in a Bankview walk-up for 15 years, said that renters contribute financially to the communities they live in by paying rent. “We are also paying for our homes—it’s just a different system, a different way of navigating and allocating the money," she added. "But we too are making a financial commitment to being in this area.”

The perceived instability and transiency of renters is often related to factors outside of their control, such as unregulated rent hikes and redevelopment pressures from investors—factors that could be addressed by a strong rental policy, Rollwagen said.

It’s really hard to achieve a critical mass and have anyone who wants to fight for renters’ rights.

Donna Clarke,

Calgary renters' rights activist

But in a city where few people demand stronger supports for renters, rental policies tend to follow the market and favour landlords.

According to 2016 census data, Calgary has a homeownership rate of 73%.

Donna Clarke, a lifelong renter and Calgary renters’ rights activist, said a low rate of renters in the city means “it’s really hard to achieve a critical mass and have anyone who wants to fight for renters’ rights because there is that stigma attached to renting.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Why should I fight for renters if I’m going to buy a house eventually?’” Clarke adds.

Leaving renters’ rights to the market

According to a 2017 City of Calgary report, most purpose-built rentals are one- and two-bedroom units in apartment buildings. However, rentals owned by private landlords offer a broader range of options, including both single-family and semi-detached homes. In combination, both rental forms can house a diversity of people and lifestyles, but purpose-built rentals often have the advantage of giving tenants some certainty, as owners are less likely to sell the property when the market is right.

“I have a lot of comfort and stability in renting from a management company because there is something of an understanding and an agreement,” Caswell said. “When you're renting from a property management company, their primary concern is to provide housing to people. I’m not beholden to someone else's personal finances.”

Clarke notes the precariousness many renters—including herself—experience in Calgary. Last October, after 10 years of renting a house in the southwest Calgary neighbourhood of Scarboro, she received three-month’s notice that the landlord wasn’t renewing the lease. The home was being sold to a developer. “Maybe it was time to change that living situation,” she said. “But I didn’t get to decide anyway—the landlord got to decide.”

Yet, a purpose-built rental operated by a management company does not guarantee stability either. Before moving to Windsor Park, Virla and his family rented a two-bedroom unit at The Arch, an apartment tower in the Beltline. They loved the neighbourhood, Hernández-Virla said, but in 2018, after two years in the building, their rent went up by $300—a 20% hike. “We tried to negotiate with them, showing them we’d treated the place as if it were ours,” Hernández-Virla said. “There was no way to convince them.”

Caswell, on the other hand, has been lucky. In 15 years, her rent has increased by $400 in total. “It’s never been an egregious increase,” she said. “Nothing more than a single digit percent increase.”

In Alberta, the Residential Tenancies Act stipulates that landlords can raise the rent as much as they want, but only once per year. Tenants are granted a three-month notice about rent increases, which are subject to the whims of the market.

Because of the power imbalance that exists, I’m at the mercy of the landlord.

Donna Clarke,

Calgary renters' rights advocate

For instance, last year the Globe and Mail reported that the proliferation of high-end, purpose-built rentals is giving Calgary landlords an opportunity to hike the rent of existing units (luxury rentals have already become a threat to rental affordability in Toronto). And despite the pandemic and rising vacancy rates, the average monthly rent in Calgary in 2020 remained the same as the previous year at $1,195.

“I think the community has a role to play in demanding [policy change], strengthening protections for renters, creating deeply affordable housing, and diverse forms of that housing," Rollwagen added. "Not just a whole bunch of one bedroom apartments, but places where families can live and not just survive but actually thrive in a community.”

But organizing and demanding protections akin to those in other provinces and many European countries is a difficult endeavour in a city where renting appears to be a stepping stone toward the goal of homeownership.

Building community where you choose to live

Today, long-term renters like Clarke and Caswell are scarce in Calgary, making it difficult to organize and demand for a path to stability other than homeownership.

Meanwhile, others like Hernández-Virla still want to buy a home one day. The family hopes to eventually find a home in a walkable, well-connected neighbourhood in Calgary’s inner city, but the dream often feels like it’s out of reach.

“If I want to have access to public transit—because I don’t want to drive—I can’t afford it,” Virla said. “I simply can’t afford to buy a home in the neighbourhoods that offer that possibility.”

The availability of purpose-built rentals in a variety of building types, unit sizes and price-points across the city could bring about the community vibrancy sought by many Calgarians, as evidenced by the large percentage of renters in some of Calgary’s most desirable communities, such as Crescent Heights, Sunnyside and Bridgeland.

I’m not defined by my address… I’m defined by the relationship I have with the people around me.

Jen Caswell,

Calgary renter

Renters can have a positive impact on the communities they choose, even if the investment they make differs from property ownership. “My relationship is not with my financial portfolio, my relationship by being a renter is with the environment around me,” Caswell said. She currently volunteers at a community garden in her neighbourhood.

But to thrive, renters need policies that level the playing field between tenants and landlords. “Because of the power imbalance that exists, I’m at the mercy of the landlord,” Clarke said. “I always try to sign a longer lease so that I have some security.”

Renting can give people of diverse backgrounds a chance to invest in building community where they want to live (rather than where they can afford to). “I’m an inner city person,” Caswell said. “If I were to buy, it would not be where I’d like to live. I would not be where I have walking distance to transit.”

The resilience of our city depends less on property values than the ability of renters to choose their neighbourhoods.

“Renters do have roots where they live, and they choose where they live with as much care and as much purpose as people who are choosing to buy homes,” Caswell said. “Being a renter actually makes me feel more connected to society. I’m not defined by my address… I’m defined by the relationship I have with the people around me.”

Editor’s Note 05/22/21: A previous version of this story included a translated quote from Luis Virla that has since been clarified for accuracy.

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, The Tyee, and Jacobin.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

Sign me up!

Thanks to the support of our 2,000+ members, none of our stories are behind a paywall. Help us do more of the journalism we need right now and become a Sprawl member today!